MAMARONECK, N.Y. — The question has to be asked, especially after watching all these guys walk off Winged Foot following the first round of the U.S. Open with smiles on their faces.
What is going on here?
The leaderboard, after one day, is loaded with players under par. That’s not how this is supposed to work.
Winged Foot has hosted the U.S. Open five times. More than 2,100 rounds have played here under the watchful — that’s a nice way of avoiding saying “cruel” or “mean” — eye of the USGA. Only 66 times had someone posted a score under par. Only once had anyone ever shot 66 or better over this diabolical piece of golf real estate in this championship.
On Thursday, two players did it before 1 p.m.
Justin Thomas shot 65. Patrick Reed shot 66, with a hole-in-one.
They weren’t alone. Rory McIlroy posted 67. Davis Thompson, an amateur taking a weeklong break from classes at the University of Georgia, held the lead for a little while at 4-under before eventually finishing with 69. Seven players in the morning wave signed scorecards with an under-par number. In 2006, the last time the U.S. Open was here, only one player went out early and put up a number in the red.
“Honestly, I did not see that many guys being under par so far,” Reed said.
Surely, in the afternoon things would get harder, the place would dry up, get firmer, be less hospitable to the poor souls who drew later tee times.
Nope. More circles on the scorecards. More red numbers. Thomas Pieters and Matthew Wolff put up two more 66s. Lee Westwood, still searching for that first major title, and Louis Oosthuizen matched McIlroy’s 67.
“It’s very difficult to, say, pro-proof a golf course,” Westwood said. “We’re good, and we hit it straight generally. We’re going to shoot low scores in certain conditions.”
On Thursday, 21 players posted scores under par. In 2006, there were 12 under-par rounds — total — over four days.
Seriously, what is going on here?
“I was in a really good frame of mind,” Thomas said after six birdies against just one bogey.
Who talks like that at a U.S. Open? This event is supposed to age you, make you wish you were a bit taller and could have had a career in basketball, or your arm was stronger and you earned a decade’s worth of paychecks as a relief pitcher.
Graeme McDowell posted 76, one of the worst rounds of the day. He shot 40 on the back nine, making five birdies and four pars. He walked to the podium and did something no one ever does here: He said it was on him.
“Certainly can’t stand here and blame the golf course in any way, shape or form this morning,” he said.
No cheap shots at the USGA. No whining about the setup.
“The greens are really soft,” Webb Simpson said.
At a U.S. Open?
OK, really, what is going on here?
Something might be happening.
Last year, Gary Woodland won with 11 under at Pebble Beach. Perhaps it was because the USGA was still stinging from the mess it had on its hands a year earlier, when it again lost control of Shinnecock Hills, leading to strong criticism from the players and a comical display by Phil Mickelson, who hit a moving golf ball in a form of protest for the silliness going on.
Perhaps it was because the USGA didn’t want to mess with a masterpiece, allowing a national treasure like Pebble Beach to shine instead of needlessly destroying it in an effort to stand by its unofficial mantra to protect par. Perhaps it was because, in the back of the USGA’s mind, it knew what was coming.
Not long after Woodland stopped posing for pictures with the trophy at Pebble Beach, the Pacific Ocean providing a perfect backdrop on Father’s Day, the whispers started:
McIlroy talked about it Tuesday, saying he had heard all about the reputation of the place and how much harder it becomes when the USGA gets its hand on it. Other players noticed it, too, the fairways as wide as hallways, the rough deep enough you can lose a small dog, the greens so sloped you take baby steps so you don’t fall on your face.
Pain was coming. Or … was it?
CEO Mike Davis admitted Wednesday the USGA looked for ways to make Winged Foot easier in spots. John Bodenhamer, the person in charge of laying out the golf course for the year’s second major, said the biggest challenge was a lack of daylight, that there were two less hours of sunshine to work with in September as opposed to the traditional spot on the calendar in June. You can’t have the players pulling out their hair for six hours when you have to get a full field to the finish line each day before the sun sets.
So is the USGA softening? Two consecutive years of championships based on the play of the world’s best instead of a trick-up golf course that rewards luck a little too much?
Perhaps it has had enough, finally grown tired of its reputation as a group interested more on inflicting punishment than identifying a true champion. Maybe it is, at long last, ready to allow the best players and the country’s finest golf courses be the stars of the show.
Or is this just a rope-a-dope?
The real Winged Foot still has three more days to show its teeth. The USGA has 54 holes to allow its cruelty to peek its head out from under the lip of a bunker.
The players aren’t dropping their guard based off one good day with little wind and perfect temperatures.
“The pins are, for the most part, in easier locations than they will be the next few days,” Jordan Spieth said. “They certainly were looking to have the lowest scores [Thursday] given the conditions that we have as well.
“But as the course firms up and the pins get thrown in other places, under par is going to be a phenomenal score.”
Tiger Woods isn’t falling for this. Not yet.
“Yeah, I don’t see any reason why it won’t get harder and get more difficult,” he said. “I just think that the golf course is there to be had. They gave us a lot of opportunities with the hole locations. Obviously they could have made it a lot more difficult if they wanted to, but I thought it was very fair.”
There is that word: Fair. Justin Thomas, even before he shot 65 on Thursday, said Winged Foot was fun.
It’s just one day. But you can’t help but wonder:
What is going on here?